Controlled Chaos: Creating an English Cottage Garden

An English cottage stands amidst the controlled chaos of its garden.

An amazing English cottage garden doesn't just whisper but yells out, "Look at me!" to anyone strolling down the sidewalk. The deep pink hollyhocks stand like stalwart soldiers next to the house guarding a vast array of flowers and foliage plants in a riot of color.

Behind a simple plank fence, old-fashioned romantic notions come to life within the spontaneous joys of whimsical flower power. There may be some method to the flower madness, but there's no secret formula to having your own garden of abundance; it's available to one and all.


At least six hours of sunshine a day are essential for plants that are not considered shade plants. You need decent soil, but you can beef up mediocre ground with well-rotted manure or compost.

Most plants prefer to keep their roots out of standing water, making drainage an important consideration for an English Cottage Garden. Fertilizing a few times during the growing season with an all-purpose plant food will do the trick.

As you begin thinking about what to plant and when to plant, keep in mind that the color in a garden is what makes it attractive. Plant perennials, annuals, herbs, shrubs, bushes, and bulbs to give a good show throughout the growing season.


Some of the most enchanting English cottage gardens just happened with helter-skelter plantings, but designing ahead may get faster results. Do keep in mind that growing a lush flower garden takes time. Incorporating perennials takes about three years to reach maturity, meaning planting today won't give you a lush garden next month.

Remember, good things come to those who wait. Until the perennials come into their own, plant more annuals such as zinnias, marigolds, love lies bleeding, cocks comb, cosmos, larkspur, strawflowers, globe amaranth, mignonette, calendulas, cleome, gaillardias, Johnny jump-ups, pansies, petunias, phlox, verbena, ageratum, caladium, alyssum, and baby's breath. Annuals can be sown from seed, but start them early indoors to get a jump on the season.

TIP: Our expert gardening advisor, Karen Thurber suggests, "Start your design by first answering the question, "How will this space be used?" Will you be entertaining frequently, needing a place for children to play, or are you looking for a backyard retreat? Finding the answer will lead to a garden that will be both useful and beautiful.

The next step is hardscaping. Hardscaping is the foundation for your landscape which includes; patios, fences, paths, and retaining walls. Lastly, begin choosing your plants. If you don't already know what you want to plant, start by looking through seed catalogs and gardening magazines. They have great pictures with lots of color. Use these pictures to start a design notebook."

Nothing looks more charming than a cottage garden that leads up to a doorway. If all demands are met, start with plantings on either side of the walk. What plants to choose depends on your specific tastes and desires.

Planting next to a walk means low growing that won't obstruct the path. One design tip to keep in mind is tall plants to the back, short ones in the front. You wouldn't want to grow daylilies next to the walk, but instead, grow them as a background.

One of the marvelous advantages of English cottage gardens is that a color scheme can be planned or not. Mounds of pink monarda or bee balm shaking their shaggy heads next to the regal sky blue delphinium imbues planned pandemonium.

A good rule of thumb when planting any plant—whether it's a perennial, annual, or bulb—is to plant in odd numbers starting with three. Buy in threes and plant in threes using the same color to create a more striking effect. The plants that can be included in a cottage garden are as broad as the rainbow spectrum of color.

TIP: Karen adds, "When planting your garden, think about how it will be viewed from the inside of the house. Placing a tall perennial near a window, so the flowers can be seen peaking in the window, will add charm to the garden. Also, planting fragrant flowers near a window can be a delightful treat."

Low Growing Plants

These are great in front of a garden or along a path: lavender, thymes, miniature plants like the Tom Thumb zinnias, marigolds, forget-me-nots, pansies, Johnny jump-ups, silver mound artemisia, and lungwort. Any plant that is compact and small in stature makes a lovely border.

Middle Height Plants

Cranesbill, cottage pinks, bleeding heart, lamb's ear, lady's mantle, globe thistle, poppies, catmint, yarrow, columbine, and daisies work well mingling in the center and at the sides of beds.

Tall Plants

Foxglove, hollyhock, and delphinium and other plants that have height form a tall, elegant background. Choose the flowers you love in colors that please you. Don't forget to include shrubs and bushes like roses and peonies.

A climbing or rambling rose that can be trained up an arbor or trellis gives a dramatic background effect. When choosing roses for an English cottage garden, try the varieties that need less maintenance such as David Austin roses, or old varieties such as the Damask rose or cabbage rose. Their lovely scents and gentle beauty will take your breath away.

The Focal Point

A focal point in a garden gives the eye a place to begin or to rest. An English cottage garden exudes casual elegance. Share the controlled chaos of your garden with friends and neighbors by adding seating in strategic locations and planting especially fragrant flowers.

Consider placing a structural piece among the flowers. A birdbath will give another dimension to the garden and entice the wild fauna to join the flora.

Create paths of bark, mulch, pea gravel, slate, or stepping stones that meander and define spaces. If you decide on grass paths, make certain the width allows for mowing.

TIP: Karen says, "One great piece of advice that I received from an older gardener was, 'Share your plants with friends.' Over the years she had shared and collected plants with many people, now when she went into her garden she had memories of each friend. Every few years perennials need dividing, so share and trade with your fellow gardeners. It is a good way to diversify your garden and share your love of plants."

The allure of a garden brimming over with lush flowers as the fragrances mingle in heady perfumes conjures up images of English cottage gardens. If you've always wanted a less formal garden that simply enchants, the English cottage garden happily obliges.